BR: Shadows and Fog (1991)

November 26, 2015 | By


ShadowsAndFog_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  November 10, 2015

Genre:  Comedy

Synopsis: A bumbling boob in turn of the century Europe experiences a night of Kafkaesque weirdness while a serial killer called The Stranger trolls the streets in this unique comedic homage to German Expressionism.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




Drawing from his one-act comedy play “Death,” Woody Allen expanded his Franz Kafka riff into an overt homage to German Expressionism, that moody film style characterized by shadowy B&W cinematography where daylight is barely seen, sets seem to encroach on characters like angular structures defying gravity, and characters are often perpetually in fear of some murderous figure lurking in the wet misty alleys of a claustrophobic town or village, or within their dreams.

The incredible sets built at New York’s Kaufman-Astoria Studio contributed to what remains Allen’s costliest production at $14 million, and the high budget no doubt flowed into the set décor and costumes. Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (The Red Desert, Blow-Up) filmed the murkily lit characters using grainy B&W film stock to give Allen’s production a veneer that’s part 1920s Expressionism, part early sound Hollywood shockers, as directed by German émigrés (Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst) and European-styledfilmmakers (notably Tod Browning, evoking a bit of his The Unknown and Freaks, which have characters and scenes involved with a travelling circus).

Shadows and Fog isn’t a horror film, but in its first half it’s certainly an eerie, Kafkaesque serial killer thriller, where a maniac known as The Strangler (Michael Kirby) is wandering the slicked cobblestone streets in search of any fool, male or female, who’d like to play cat’s cradle with a strand of piano wire. Allen plays Kleinman, a man awoken at night by colleagues who insist he’s part of ‘the plan’ and needs to get out of bed and get with the program – although Kleinman has no idea what the hell that’s supposed to be.

As Kleinman bumbles throughout the alleys in fear of his life, he bumps into both his colleagues and rivals who verbally shame and persecute him without firm reasons or explanations.

Allen’s secondary storyline has sword swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) tearing away from her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) and leaving the quaint circus encampment when she finds him doing suspicious trapeze positions with harlot Marie (Madonna).

Kleinman and Irmy’s meeting happens after she’s earned $700 for a first-time session with a wealthy student (John Cusack) at the local brothel, after which Irmy’s boyfriend wanders into town, bumps into her first John, and has to process the reality of being cuckolded for profit.

When a local coroner (Donald Pleasence) is killed by The Strangler, Kleinman is implicated, setting off a back & forth chase that takes the schlub to the brothel for some existential chatter with the student, and then the circus encampment, where he manages to deflect the serial killer with the aide of a magician with real powers (played with a quasi-Swedish accent by the inimitable Kenneth Mars).

Whereas Allen was able to discretely juggle black comedy with murder in the superior Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), S&F proved more of a challenge for the writer-director, and probably his audience, as there’s a sense plotting and characters were weakened by extra attention to the film’s overall look. It’s not a dud nor a disappointment, but S&F begins like an intricate Allen homage, and as atmosphere and nuances begin to pile up, what propels the film are sketch bits, many of which take time to set up before occasionally hysterical punchlines (“Get out and DIE!” says the bride he dumped years before).

The cast is packed with a plethora of fine stars and character actors in recurring and one-scene bits, and Kleinman’s perpetual ‘Kafka state’ – never knowing what he’s supposed to do, and why he just can’t go back to bed – is underscored with instrumental versions of Kurt Weill songs.

Among the whorehouse staffers is the madam (Lily Tomlin) who manages a trio of hookers (Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, and Anne Lange), and smaller parts are filled by Wallace Shawn, Julie Kavner (as the gun-loading ex-fiancee), Kate Nelligan, William H. Macy, and John C. Reilly.

The Strangler is a kind of Max Shrek / Rondo Hatton figure who creeps rather than runs, yet still reaches his targets, and Pleasence being cast as a sherry-drinking coroner is brilliant; the veteran Halloween star seems to be relishing the small part, playing it straight while Allen neurotically chatters and recoils at grisly exposed murder victims.

There are light moments within S&F, but they too refer to grim behaviour, and the film seems to have been aimed at a more cinematically and philosophically astute audience than the more mainstream crowd that relished Mel Brooks-Gene Wilder 1971 classic Young Frankenstein (which also featured Mars in an unforgettable Euro-accented role). When Allen’s onscreen, absurdism reigns (especially when a human ‘sniffer’ exposes Kleinman as an evidence thief), but the other straight performances of the cast  push the film a bit towards a tragic drama.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a crisp transfer that preserve’s Di Palma’s film grain, and the mono mix is evenly balanced. The included trailer plays up Allen’s bumbling boob persona, and closes with the film’s best line.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide good contextual details on Allen’s final film for studio Orion Pictures, then in its death throes in spite of having released many of Allen’s most popular works, and enjoying recent Oscar nods with Dances with Wolves (1990) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), starring Jodie Foster. Too many duds helped kill the studio, and perhaps allowing for extravagant budgets didn’t help.

(Allen at least kept his film tight and focused in comparison to idol Ingmar Bergman, who recreated the Berlin of his childhood – with a trolley system – in the Expressionistic dud The Serpent’s Egg in 1977 for producer Dino De Laurentiis and releasing studio Paramount.)

Allen’s career didn’t suffer after Orion’s collapse, but there’s a sense the studio’s apparent mantra of ‘Go make your personal project and we’ll cover the budget’ allowed for a level of freedom that yielded a unique golden period beloved by fans for Allen’s clever character pieces, genre homages, and experimentation.

Woody Allen films released on Blu by Twilight Time include Love and Death (1975), Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Broadway Danny Rose (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and The Front (1976) starring Allen.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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